A tangled mix of self-interest shaped by idealism will force America back onto the world stageby Bronwen Maddox / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
On nights when the house has gone quiet and I end up working late, I find myself sifting through the pictures and reports that have come in that day about Islamic State’s progress through the territory that used to be called Iraq and Syria. Not what you should do before going to sleep, sure, but I find the chronicle of atrocities and battles, jerking forward most days by way of brief news flashes or videos and personal accounts smuggled out from Mosul, Raqqa or Tal Afar, has the awful grip of a story where two futures are always simultaneously imaginable: one, where the nodes and webs of IS’s control are pushed back off the map, and the other, even more horrific than now.
Journalists and politicians are particularly susceptible to the delusion of trying to discern progress in a conflict where there may be none, where the contenders may each have just enough support to keep any resolution at bay and there is no future peace in sight to make present suffering in any sense “worth it.” One reason, though, that the outlook in the Middle East is so bleak at the moment is the reluctance of the United States to take a lead role in combating IS, and the silence of its president on whether he intends in any significant way to intervene.
“Today is the first Memorial Day in 14 years that the US is not engaged in a major war.”
Not that American intervention is always a prescription for peace, of course. The ugly lessons of Iraq hang over the region, not just the besieged and smouldering cities of Iraq itself. In 1991, two days after the US victory in the Gulf War, George HW Bush declared that “the spectre of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.” Yet 14 years after 9/11, the world remains transfixed—and parts of it, lethally exhilarated—by the spectacle of American discomfiture. The world’s richest country and biggest military power, spending more on defence than the next seven countries combined, not only failed to achieve most of what it intended in deploying that force, but made mistakes that wrecked its reputation for competence, judgement and commitment to its own founding principles, as well as ravaging its national finances.